Pork, king of the BBQ
There is room at the barbecue for all proteins, but pork leads the way at the barbecue pit. With pulled pork, ribs, ham and sausage, one protein can offer a wealth of eating experiences.
Patrick Fleming, Director of Retail Marketing for the National Pork Board, points out that barbecue
started with pork.
“There’s a reason why we’ve dominated since the beginning— it’s the unique combination of
texture and flavor and the ability to carry other flavors,” he says. “Pork is very open to changing
flavor profiles just by changing your spice rub or your wood, and then of course your sauces. Pork is
a really good conveyor of flavor.”
He points to shows like “BBQ Pitmasters” on
Destination America and other TV shows that
have helped spur the popularity of barbecue while
taking some of the mystery out of the process.
“There was always some fear that you couldn’t
do it, but once you try it, it’s not that hard, and
you can make something that really tastes amazing in your own backyard,” he says.
Fleming says that a pork shoulder is one of
the best value meats that a consumer can have. A
lightly seasoned batch of pulled pork can be used
in a wide range of products and flavors: traditional
American barbecue, Asian barbecue, a pizza
topping, or even a salad topping.
That versatility makes it a hit with consumers
at retail and foodservice alike. Fleming compares
“Once you have that product, you can create a
thousand different things with it. From a back of
house standpoint, there is a lot of flexibility with
pulled pork,” he says. “We’ve really been excited
about the expansion of that, both in foodservice
and at retail.”
Ribs are, of course, a summertime grilling
staple, and Fleming notes the prevalence of preseasoned as well as pre-cooked barbecue ribs at retail. Both items take a step or two out of the
preparation process for consumers, allowing them
to have a restaurant-quality barbecue meal at
This summer, the National Pork Board is
helping to promote the use of chops as a barbecue
item. The decision by the USDA to lower the
cooking temperature for pork products opens a
new world of tastes for consumers.
“You can have pork chops medium rare — a
different eating experience from Grandma’s overcooked chops,” Fleming says with a chuckle.
The Board’s new point-of-sale kits, themed
“Grill Crashers” and “Cook It Like a Steak,” also
take advantage of the new nomenclature for pork
loins and chops. A Porterhouse chop is a great
item for a summer cookout on the grill.
“We’ve been telling retail and trade in general
that a thicker chop will grill better. The industry
has been cutting thinner and thinner, and thin is
okay for certain applications,” Fleming notes.
“But a thicker chop will provide more of that
juicy, tender, flavorful experience.”
For more information about the pork POS kits
and more, go to www.porkretail.org.
There are certain parts of the United States that are known for their barbecue. Kansas City, naturally. Texas, of course. Can’t forget about Memphis. But New York City? Even in the Big Apple, with its trendy restaurants and celebrity chefs, diners can appreciate the craft of barbecue, where a fine cut of meat is smoked and cooked to perfection, seasoned and sauced to bring out the best flavors and presented with mouthwatering sides. That is a recipe to make any meat lover’s mouth water, regardless of where they live.
Evidence of barbecue’s popularity can be seen by the rise in barbecue chain restaurants. While BBQ chains aren’t yet as common as burger or deli sandwich restaurants, they are growing, and the largest of the chains is Dickey’s Barbecue Pit. With 500 stores across the country, Dickey’s has been growing by around 100 units per year for the last four years.
Dickey’s is also one of the oldest barbecue chains in existence, as Travis Dickey founded the business in Dallas in 1941. It was his sons, Roland and T.D., who added franchises, and current president and CEO, Roland Jr., has overseen the company’s recent nationwide growth.
“Barbecue is just a simple essence of good food,” Dickey says when asked about its popularity. “There’s a craftsmanship involved in barbecue that people love. People are understanding simple foods and fewer ingredients more than they ever have in the past, and BBQ fits perfectly into that.”
Dickey’s has been a local chain for most of its history. At one point, the company had just 14 company-owned stores in the Dallas area. It did not start franchising until 1994, when a regular customer convinced Roland Sr. to sell him a franchise. Gradually, more people came on, more locations were added, and Dickey’s range grew from Dallas to all of Texas. At that point, the company took to the philosophy of “Go big or go home” and started bringing authentic Texas barbecue to the rest of the country with locations throughout the United States.
As the number of restaurants has grown, Dickey’s menu has shrunk. Rather than try to be all things to all people, the chain is focusing on what it does best.
“The typical consumer today, they don’t want a big, broad menu where people are generalists,” Dickey says. “They want specialists! They want people who exactly know what they are and what they’re doing. We want just to have really great BBQ and some great sides.
“I’ve seen so many barbecue places where they don’t know what they are or what they want to be,” he continues. “They have non-barbecue items, they have a bar, they have burgers, appetizers, whole bunch of things like that. We just are fast-casual barbecue. Go, order at the counter and pay, and go enjoy some great tray barbecue.”
As the company expanded beyond its Texas roots, it did offer some accommodations for regional barbecue differences, with things like a vinegar-based sauce for the Carolina restaurants or cornbread for Midwest locations. Eventually, the decision was made to stick with its core menu and its own popular sauce, and Dickey’s has never looked back. As an added benefit, a smaller menu keeps startup costs down to the level of a sub sandwich franchise, and sales are typically more impressive.
Presently, brisket accounts for about 40 percent of Dickey’s sales, though pork is the leading protein on the menu. Pulled pork, ribs, ham, Polish sausage (which is beef and pork) and spicy cheddar sausage all appear on the menu. Turkey and chicken also are featured. The company estimates that it is going to smoke and serve about 40 million pounds of meat in 2015.
The newest item was the spicy cheddar sausage, added in 2011. It started off as a rare limited-time offer, and the demand was so overwhelmingly positive that it gained a permanent spot on the menu. It marked the first time in almost 50 years that a new signature meat item was added.
The introduction of the cheddar sausage was an exception to the rule. Dickey says that instead of a rash of special menu items and limited-time offers, the company favors incremental improvements to its existing products. It is currently experimenting on a new and improved brisket rub.
“We’ve limited the number of spices. We’ve got sea salt, and we’ve gone to a coarser grind black pepper,” he says. “Outsiders might say, ‘Well, that’s real exciting. Who cares?’ But we’re nerdy in our own way about barbecue, so that’s an exciting thing for us.”
Considering the size of the company and its franchise growth, consumers are responding well to those incremental changes and a smaller menu. Same-store sales increase year after year, and systemwide sales grew by over 50 percent in 2014. Even with all the success, Dickey says the company does not take anything for granted.
“We’ve been fortunate to be received by the general public in the popular, positive way that we have, but that’s something that we have to work on every single day: to deliver on our brand promise, which is to be the best at great BBQ in a simple format,” he says.
Like every other restaurant chain, Dickey’s is paying attention to the trend toward transparency, and how small restaurants and chains have made transparency one of their hallmarks.
“I think all restaurant brands understand what the times are and what consumer tastes are — they don’t want mystery meat. It’s not just perfunctory beef, chicken or pork. They want to know what type is it, what cut it is, where it’s coming from,” Dickey says.
Dickey also pays attention toward the push for antibiotic-free meats and gestation crate bans. He notes the difficulty of getting both the restaurant and meat-processing industries to change course and adapt to those demands.
“We see chains like Chick-fil-A and McDonald’s, and they’ve got a multi-year timeframe to do it. [Even] with their size and buying power to do that, it takes a while,” he points out. “There are chains like Chipotle that are wonderful, but they don’t do [antibiotic-free] with all of their meats.”
Smaller restaurants can offer an antibiotic-free, all-natural or organic menu, but they are able to charge a higher price for their food and find customers willing to pay it. For a chain that has supplied conventionally raised protein for decades, the change is much more difficult, considering the low margins of the restaurant industry and the consumer’s price expectations at the QSR sector.
Dickey’s has progressed toward that goal with incremental changes.
“We removed sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite from our sausage about a year and a half ago,” Dickey says. “We use extra celery salt instead of the curing salts. We didn’t get a lot of publicity for that, but we want to take those additives that are not good for people out of our food."
Dickey believes there will be a tipping point, much like there was for smoking in public places. At some point, companies that continue to use conventional proteins will be made to change or lose public support.
“Exactly when that’s going to happen, nobody knows, but I think that’s how it’s going to happen, and that will be the catalyst for the meat processing industry as well as the restaurant industry,” he says.
“There’s a way to make it work so it’s a win-win for all stakeholders. The leaders are the ones that are going to do the best, and we are committed to get all of our meats to that point one day, a little bit at a time."
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